Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Smile That Wouldn't Stop

As I waited for the train to take me home from work, a man appeared next to me. I never heard or saw him coming.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Sair?”

“Yeah?” I replied, immediately understanding that “sair” meant “sir”. I turned my attention from my newspaper and looked over at him. He was short and dark like a shadow and he had an enormous smile that wouldn’t stop. His teeth were as white and dull as chalk.

“The train…eh…when…?” he asked, his nasally voice thin and harsh. He separated his hands in the air. “Eh,” he continued, “the train comes…?”

I could see that he was having difficulties with the language, so I interpreted his question for him. “How often does the train come?” I said.

His eyes widened. “Yes!” he said, pronouncing “yes” as “yays”, saying it in a hushed way, and hanging on the S like a snake.

“Every few minutes, I guess,” I said. I shrugged and was about to look at my paper again, but he wasn’t done with me.

“Minutes?” he asked and kept smiling.

“Yeah, supposed to”. I shrugged again to shake him off and smirked in a friendly way and went back to my paper. I started to read the first sentence of a new article and forgot about him. A wind came swirling in from a train that wasn’t mine on the opposite platform and blew my hair around and bent my newspaper in an awkward, unreadable way. When a train comes through with all its noise and commotion, most people react to it in some way even if they’ve just been staring at nothing. I’ve seen children covering their ears, women holding their skirts, and grown men crouching on the ground. Occasionally, I hide behind one of the columns and shield my eyes from any flying debris. It might seem like paranoia, but it comes from knowing a woman who had to have a tiny metal fragment removed from her eye. Sometimes paranoia is justified.

After the train moved on and I stiffened my paper to read again, I realized my dark little friend was still standing there and he was still smiling up at me.

“Sair?” he said.

“Yeah?” I said. I was beginning to feel like a father humoring the nagging questions of his son. I was expecting him to tug at my sleeve next.

“Who make,” he said, then paused. “Who make the train,” he said, paused again, and then held his hands before him, palms up, and continued, “All this?”

“What? The subway system?” I guessed.

“Yays!” he hissed. He seemed so excited when I got him right.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. I raised my head and looked off into the distance as if I were pondering the thought. “City workers, I guess.”

He nodded his head. “How long? Eh…” he looked around searching for the words to finish his thought. “How…old…how old…” He tightened his lips and squinted his eyes as if he had just tasted something sour. He seemed frustrated that he couldn’t find the words, so I spoke for him again.

“How long has it been here, you mean?” I said.

“Yays!”

“Oh, a long time, I guess.”

“How long?” He got excited. “One hundred…five hundred year?”

“No,” I said and chuckled a little at his enthusiasm. “Not that long; certainly less than a hundred.”

“Who watch it?” he asked. He lost his smile a little and looked a little more curious.

“I don’t know,” I said and looked away. I wasn’t exactly sure what he was getting at, and I didn’t feel like guessing at answers anymore just to pacify him.

“You have book...eh…manual…eh…blueprint…?” he asked.

“Blueprint?” I said. I looked at him with amazement and laughed awkwardly at what he said. “No, not me; nothing like that.” I wasn’t sure where this was going, but his questions were suddenly making me uncomfortable. I went back to my paper and started on the first sentence a second time. He wasn’t done with me.

“No?” he asked. I could hear his smile widening again by the tone of his voice.

“Nope,” I said without looking at him. I went back to the beginning of that sentence again. A faint wind began to stir, scattering papers into a dance across the floor. I peaked over the edge and down the tunnel and saw the circular glow of the headlight of an approaching train. I could just barely make out the letter of the train and knew that it was mine. I closed my eyes. I leaned back against the post, resting my head against it, and held the newspaper up to protect my face. The air around me moved heavy and fast. The train blew its horn. It flew past, rattled the tracks like a jackhammer, and never stopped. It just kept moving fast and blowing its horn, warning us to step away from the edge.

“Damn.” I thought. The train was gone, and something closer to silence resumed.

“Sair?” the little pest said. I couldn’t believe my patience with this guy and I couldn’t believe that I couldn’t find some way to politely ask him to leave me alone.

“Yeah?” I said, looking at him from the corners of my eyes. “What?”

“What…eh…” He was struggling again with the language and pointing down the tunnel after the departed train. “…it’s made of?”

“What? The train?” I asked, showing impatience, “What is the train made of?”

“Yays!” he said. He was happy again.

“Paper,” I replied.

He was quiet. For the first time, I managed to shut him up. I thought maybe he would take the hint that I didn’t appreciate his company any more. His brow furrowed and his mouth turned to a frown. His chin tightened and little dimples formed there. He was troubled by my answer.

“Paper?” he said. He looked confused.

“Yes!” I said in the exact way that he had been saying to me.

“Paper?” he repeated. “The train is paper?” He looked at me like a dumb kid who couldn’t make sense of anything in the world.

“Sure,” I said, no longer feigning enthusiasm.

“Aw,” he growled and smiled again. “No,” he said, “you play…you fool me now!”

He laughed, but I showed no amusement. I shrugged and looked at my paper again. I thought my false answer would make him understand that I didn’t want to speak with him anymore, but he seemed to take it as an act of friendship.

He started up again like a child. “What about that?” he said, pointing at the wall across from us. “It’s made of…?”

“What?” I asked without looking at him. “The wall?” I stared at my paper as if I were reading it, even though I couldn’t. “How should I know?” I shook my head with annoyance.

“Same as this, right?” he said, pointing at the column I was leaning against.

“Yeah, sure, I don’t know.” I didn’t look at him. “Whatever you want it to be.”

“Iron, right?” He patted it with an open hand. “Yays, iron.”

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t look at him. He was moving too close to me and I didn’t like it.

“It make from iron!” he said. He was smiling and he seemed so happy about something.

I couldn’t help but wonder why a man – a foreign man – would ask for such detailed information about the New York subway system. Asking about blueprints and what things are made of seemed strange and almost like a joke to me, so I began to wonder if he was putting me on for some reason. I forced myself to look at him again. I hardened my stare and I didn’t return his smile. There was an impenetrable eeriness beyond his innocent demeanor and it was apparent that he wasn’t putting me on. He had originally seemed harmless, but his behavior and strange questions were putting me on edge.

“Right?” he asked. “It make from iron!”

“Sure,” I said. I went quiet and looked away. Another wind from another approaching train made the people on the platform adjust their positions, some turning away in self-defense from the beating they were about to take as the train got closer and the winds got stronger while others moved forward to gain advantage of being the first through the doors when the train stopped. I got a look at the blurred letter on the side of the train as it swept by me. It wasn’t mine. It eventually stopped and then moved on again, leaving me alone with this unsettling companion.

“Train come soon, right?” he asked.

“Supposed to,” I replied, trying to ignore him.

“Train come in few minutes, right?” he asked.

“I sure hope so,” I said.

He finally quieted down and I was able to start reading my newspaper again. I forgot about him after a few minutes. I didn’t want to look in his direction to confirm that he was gone because I was afraid that he would still be standing there and take it as an invitation to talk again, but I was sure that he had gone away. I could sense that his presence had vanished.

My train finally came and this time it stopped. It was as packed as usual for that early in the evening, and I forced my way through the crowd of people standing just inside the door. I saw an empty spot on a seat between a fat man and a small, old lady. I took it. I sighed from the relief of finally having lost that strange man as I sat down. I put him out of my mind, raised my paper before me, and started reading again. It was a tight fit in that seat, but I made it work.

At the next stop, the fat man got off the train. I lowered my newspaper and slid over into his place. As others were getting off and getting on, I looked up and saw that strange little man’s dark, smiling face hovering above me. He didn’t say anything this time. He just stood there smiling. It was a strange shift of perception looking up at him as he stared down at me instead of the other way around as it had been on the platform.

I nodded my head slightly, almost imperceptibly, but showed no emotion. I went back to ignoring him and reading the paper, but I could still sense him standing there and staring down at me. Whatever relief I had been feeling was now altered by his return.

After a few more stops, he took a seat across from me and a few feet to the right. I couldn’t resist sneaking a look at him, but I saw that he was already looking at me when I looked at him. He was still smiling at me. A horrible feeling of dread came over me. I felt like I was in the company of evil. I looked away not knowing what he wanted or where this strange game was going.

I got off at my stop wondering if he would follow me. I walked about halfway up the steps and peaked down at the train and saw that he was still sitting in his seat. His body was facing away from me, but his head was turned around and he was staring at me through the window. As my eyes met his, a cold shiver ran through my body.

The doors closed and the train pushed off. I continued up the steps, went through the turnstiles, and walked until I found a train attendant in one of the kiosks. There was a woman sitting in there, so I got her attention and told her about the man’s odd behavior and the strange questions that he had been asking. She looked at me through the plastic window separating us and said, “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You know, ‘If you see something, say something’,” I said, referring to the notices that were sometimes posted on the trains and waiting areas.

“Well, what did you see?” she asked.

“I didn’t see anything,” I said. “It was more about the things he said and the way he acted.” I was beginning to doubt the relevance of the situation as I heard myself speaking about it.

“Did you get his name?”

“No,” I said. I was dumbfounded.

“Did he tell you where he was going?”

“No,” I said and stared at her a moment. “Why would he?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “You said he said things.”

“Yeah, I already told you what he said,” I said. “Look, he was still on the train when I got off, so maybe you could have somebody look for him and question him when he gets off.”

She looked at me for a moment with no expression.

“Yeah,” she said. “We’ll do that.” I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or sarcastic.

“Look,” I continued. “I’m just trying to help and do what I thought was the right thing to do. It’s probably nothing, but I thought it was worth mentioning.”

“Okay,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” She spoke calmly and smiled.

I walked away unsure of everything, and I went home feeling like I shouldn’t have said anything at all.

1 comment:

Mark Hampton said...

Most likely, he's a terrorist gathering information... You should have taken a picture of him with your cell phone or shot some video of him.